team adult

Exclusive Experiences in Youth Sports: A Dividing Line

“Dear Player, (and subsequently parent (s))

CONGRATULATIONS! You have been selected to become a member of the Travel Program. This was a competitive process and you should be proud that the Club coaches have invited you to become a part of this prestigious program.”

Ahhh, the coveted club-invite letter. Often it is attached to a list of expectations and regularly a player/parent contract that formally identifies the expectations under which all parties will be operating. Oh, and usually in there you’ll find an itemized list of how much this arrangement is going to cost. More often than not…it’s going to cost a lot!

The language and design of any private club exists on the premise of exclusion.

For Youth Sports it is too often an exclusion of affluence.

At face value, this is a standard practice of youth sports programming, and widely accepted as “the way things are.” Sometimes it is the formal letter, sometimes it is a recruiting phone call, but always it is an invitation that hits to the central core of why we invest in the things we do for our children. We want the very best for them, and sometimes it is the best we can afford, but always it is to belong to the best something bigger we can find.

Ok, I can buy that. We’ve celebrated the receipt of such letters in our house and acknowledge the legitimate work it takes to become a recipient of one. I don’t want to minimize the efforts of so many athletes who put in the time to be recognized for their athletic talent. They should be proud. The danger is not in the teaching of the work-hard-and-good-things-will-happen lesson that is learned in this letter exchange. The danger is in the creation of systems of exclusion for CHILDREN that we, as adults, perpetuate because we can afford it. It is a system that ultimately isolates us all.

You can club hop… if you have resources.

You can travel with aspiring hockey players to multiple cities through the winter because they are “invited” members of tournament-only teams who play games and never practice together… if you have resources. Or better yet, you can pay 10s of 1000s of dollars for your child to live with another family and play hockey there.

You can provide transportation to a better club for a team your child has been invited to play with and pay the extra expense for that experience…if you have resources.

Is it my intent to make you feel badly about your resources? No. In laying out the truth of the privatization of youth sports, I simply want to challenge all of us to think about what it is we are actually buying.

With exclusionary youth sports, we as a collective society, and most especially those who perpetuate it by funding it, minimize the opportunities we all have for a healthy, diverse community. Youth sports has become a magnifier for the disparities that exist in this country, and they effectively pull apart the communities that would ultimately have the capacity to nurture us in the ways we need. Kids don’t play with their friends, or in their neighborhoods. It is a badge of honor that the further you go to play your sport, obviously the better you are. For families who do this, it is an isolating endeavor.

You see this most in the demise of high school sport participation. (which started declining before COVID) High school teams used to be the bastion for community gathering. I could make the argument that travel sports got a boost of participation because parents wanted to ensure their child(ren) would have an opportunity to participate at the high school level. Now there seems to be a sentiment that high school sports are not “the best” option people can buy for their children, so they play elsewhere. With the decline of refs, participation and attitude about the value of high school athletics, I give it ten years until high school sports do not exist at all.

If all of this was helping society as a whole, I would defend its existence. What I see as a byproduct of the exclusivity in youth sports is a deepening of a chasm that already exists between the “haves” and the “have-nots”, between community and isolation. As if we don’t have division enough. Youth sports only serves the few, when it should serve the many, many children we as team adult need to be serving.

Or maybe we really do want this. Maybe there isn’t an inherent problem in the divisions and it just grates me the wrong way. As a Christian, I value community and a gifted collective too much to simply accept this as the way we as humans are meant to engage with one another. There has to be a better way.

What do you think? Do exclusive travel teams help or hinder us? Is there more to the big picture?

Copyright 2022 Meagan Frank

Team Adult Playbook

Choosing to Grow

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